Five Variations of Jane Austen’s Emma

Emma Woodhouse, as Jane Austen describes in the opening line of Emma, “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence.” She’s “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” However, as we read the novel, we see Emma’s flaws. She’s a complex character whose story has held readers’ attention for over two centuries.

It’s no wonder that so many modern authors have tried to capture the complexities of Emma in their own retellings of the novel. For me, the best retellings borrow enough elements from Jane Austen’s classic to feel familiar while adding new elements that make it unique. Some retellings feature variations of Miss Woodhouse, while others give one of Emma’s acquaintances the starring role.

I read the following five derivatives of Emma back-to-back:

In this Emma-inspired novel, Joan Aiken gives Jane Fairfax her own story, set in the same time period as Austen’s original. It took me time to adjust to Aiken’s dense writing style, but once I did, I enjoyed this perspective on Jane Fairfax’s life. The book focuses on Jane’s journey from an orphan to Frank Churchill’s fiance, and gives us a reason for why “no friendship had ever sprung up” between Emma and Jane when they were children (pg. 13). Jane Fairfax is a quiet, talented young woman who deserves a story as good as this one.

Thank you to @FranWrites11 for recommending this book to me!

Unlike the other books on this list, which combine elements from Austen’s work with wholly original writing, this novel is almost identical to Austen’s Emma, word for word for most of the book, with a few significant changes: characters are openly involved in same-sex relationships, which are legally recognized, and some of the characters are different genders from their original counterparts. In the Foreword, the author says that this is a “thought experiment,” explaining:

“By changing Mr. Weston into a Mrs. … and James for Jane, I can balance the relationships, and the reasons for marrying. The novel is not relegated to Gay Issues, that is, the characters concerned about being gay. The novel examines human issues, in specific the range of reasons for marrying, whatever one’s gender preference.”

The novel takes place in a re-imagined Regency Era England, and if we can accept other historically inaccurate changes to that period (or completely imaginary changes, like zombies) then readers should have no trouble accepting a Regency Era with laws and social values from our time (unfortunately, though, I’m sure that won’t be the case for everyone).

This Amish retelling of Austen’s Emma takes place in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is only about an hour and a half from where I live. I’ve visited Lancaster many times, and when my twins were in the NICU, we shared a room with an Amish child (the Amish do not oppose modern medicine, and many will go to the hospital when necessary). I enjoyed reading a modern version of Emma set in a culture I’ve wanted to learn more about (the author is not Amish, but has lived among the Amish). In this retelling, the main character isn’t spoiled and well-known for her looks, but is instead a “good Amish woman,” one who is “proper and plain.” It’s an interesting twist on Jane Austen’s original book.

“This is the twenty-first century, you know,” Miss Taylor, Emma’s governess, mutters to Emma’s father as he considers marrying off Isabella, his teenage elder daughter. Honestly, I needed the reminder that this adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma takes place in the 21st century. Its stodgy atmosphere and adherence to stereotypical social norms belong in the 1950s or earlier. The writing is full of long, descriptive paragraphs with little dialogue or action, making it a bad choice for me but perhaps a better choice for others.

This modern retelling of Austen’s Emma begins in Highbury, Kentucky on July 4, 1954, the day Emma was born, but the bulk of the story takes place in the 1970s. Emma returns home to care for her father, and George Knightley, a close family friend, is a young lawyer and serial monogamist. Although I’m not quite sure how I feel about Mr. Knightley with a 1970s-style mustache, I enjoyed reading a version of Emma that takes place in the mid-to-late 20th Century, a time of immense social change. There are references to the Equal Rights Amendment and interracial relationships, and Emma faces the question of whether racial prejudice taints her match-making initiatives. I would’ve liked more of an exploration of these themes, but I appreciated that the author didn’t leave these issues out completely.

I read this book based on Suzan Lauder’s recommendation. Thank you, Suzan!

And a bonus:

This book is not as closely tied to Emma as the other books I talk about in this post, but it focuses on a Jane Austen-style love-triangle set in a contemporary Arab-Australian, Muslim community where business-like arranged marriages are the norm. It’s a good option for lovers of Austen-inspired work who are looking for books featuring characters from diverse backgrounds. I reviewed it here.

 

For more variations of Jane Austen’s novels, see:

15 comments

  1. You’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed Jane Fairfax. I remember reading another Emma variation about a professional matchmaker in NYC but I can’t remember the title or the author!

  2. I’ve had a copy of James Fairfax on my shelf for ages but just haven’t been able to read it yet. I’ll get to it eventually. Same thing with McCall Smith’s Emma rewrite.

  3. I love these variations on Jane Austen posts! I find it fascinating to compare similar-themed novels to one another. I like to see the different perspectives. And it’s amazing to see how different they can all be!

  4. Since you read all five together, did you find yourself confusing the stories or getting tired of the plot? And I always wonder how these books work for people who haven’t read the source material.

    1. I didn’t get tired of the plots, in part because the authors added enough new elements to make their books quite different from the original. All of these derivatives can stand on their own.* They make sense without knowing Austen’s Emma, but I think they’re more enjoyable for readers who can appreciate the modern author’s use of the original material.

      *James Fairfax is a little different in that most of the writing is identical to Emma, but it still makes sense without reading the original.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s